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UN On Solomon Islands Initiative

7 July 1999

United Nations Press Briefing

PRESS BRIEFING ON UNITED NATIONS INTER-AGENCY MISSION TO SOLOMON ISLANDS

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Kevin M. Kennedy, Chief of the Emergency Liaison Branch of the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs, this morning briefed correspondents at Headquarters on the activities of a recent United Nations inter-agency mission to Solomon Islands.

He said the mission had been launched in response to a request from the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, Bartholomew Ulafa'alu, to the Secretary- General for humanitarian assistance for those affected by the ethnic tensions which had recently erupted on the island of Guadalcanal.

By way of background, Mr. Kennedy said that the source of the tensions were differences between the native Gwale people of Guadalcanal and people from the neighbouring island of Maliata who had, over the last 30 years or so, moved to Guadalcanal to take advantage of the increased economic opportunities there.

He said the friction was centred around land ownership issues, control of resources and a general resentment towards Malaitan people who were perceived to disproportionately benefit from the economic opportunities on Guadalcanal. That friction had resulted in a campaign over the last three months by militant Gwale elements against Malaitan settlers on the island.

Though the level of violence had been relatively low -- about six people had been killed on both sides -- actual intimidation by armed Gwale elements or fear of potential violence had led to a mass migration of Malaitan people from the countryside into the capital of Honiara, he said. Many had made the subsequent trip onwards to the island of Malaita which was approximately 60 miles from Guadalcanal. It was estimated -- though it was difficult to nail down -- that about 15,000 to 20,000 people were affected, or about 20 per cent of the population of Guadalcanal.

He also said that the Government of Solomon Islands had made strenuous efforts to arrange a peace. Notable was the work of the Commonwealth Special Envoy, Sitiveni Rabuka, the former Prime Minister of Fiji. Mr. Kennedy said that while the United Nations mission was on the island, the Commonwealth Special Envoy had negotiated a peace accord between the militants and the Government which remained to be implemented.

The humanitarian mission consisted of representatives from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the Department of Political Affairs. The mission, which had lasted from 27 June to 5 July, focused its work on both the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita and had looked at the various people affected by the conflict. Those included principally the Malaitans who had been forced out of their homes on the island of Guadalcanal, as well as Gwale people, also on the island of Guadalcanal, who had moved into the bush to avoid conflict.

OCHA Briefing - 2 - 7 July 1999

Mr. Kennedy said the mission had respected the mechanisms adopted by the people to cope with the situation. In this regard, he noted their tradition of looking after the extended family, which had served them well in the conflict. The mission members had spent some time on the island of Malaita. In three different teams, they had been able to cover the island, visiting many of the villages there. The islanders were making stellar efforts to adjust to their new situation, which was very difficult. The host families were doing the same.

The mission had noted several needs, he said, including food to tie the islanders over until the next harvest, which was due in October or November. Other needs included non-food items, such as axes and implements, to rebuild homes and to begin planting. In addition, there was need for protection against malaria. The WHO had a very extensive anti-malaria programme in Solomon Islands -- one of the leading countries with malaria. There was some concern that the programme should be maintained in Malaita as people moved across the island.

It was anticipated that, in concert with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the national red cross societies, the Government and non-governmental organizations, the United Nations would launch a very modest but effective humanitarian programme to meet the needs of those immediately affected by the crisis. The United Nations would also begin to monitor the development of the peace process and to see what other impact it might have on the people of Solomon Islands.

Mr. Kennedy told a correspondent that, compared with Kosovo or Angola, the conflict might seem "small potatoes" in terms of the number of people affected. But in the context of Solomon Islands, it was a major crisis, and that was how it was being treated. The United Nations had responded quickly to the request of the Prime Minister. The mission had been launched within a week. The mediation effort at present was being led by the Commonwealth Special Envoy, who had been appointed specifically for that task. He was doing a very good work and "we're in support of him", Mr. Kennedy said.

The United Nations mission had met with the Special Envoy while it was in the area. Mr. Kennedy also said humanitarian assistance would form an important part of the mediation and settlement efforts, and the United Nations would continue to follow that process very closely.

What was New Zealand's role, and could it play a useful part in the whole reconstruction process? a correspondent asked. Mr. Kennedy said the mission had met with the New Zealand High Commissioner while it was in Guadalcanal. New Zealand was close to the situation and was actively involved. It was a very active participant in the humanitarian assistance effort and had provided funds.

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